They're Just Like Us: Life as a Voice-Over Artist is Really Just a Constant Hustle
(Video by Meredith Rosenberg for the Voice.)
"Whether the general public chooses to acknowledge it or not, voice-over matters," asserted Geena Davis, playing a hard-boiled Hollywood exec in Lake Bell's sparkling comedy In a World... "Everyone watches movie trailers, everyone sees commercials on television or they hear them on the radio and that is power."
Sondra James, a real life voice actor and producer, is more blunt about her career.
"You're background, you're furniture. You provide atmosphere. But let's face it, you're not important."
To be fair, Bell's 2013 indie flick didn't exactly glamorize the voice-over profession either -- one of the protagonists, lauded as the preeminent American voice artist, manages to attract one lithe young groupie but still dwells in a modest suburban rancher. Still, the feature did grant some visibility to an otherwise (quite literally) unseen industry.
And a rather odd niche industry it is, one that banks on those rare actors who are able to eschew their breed's common-if-not-compulsive need for glory. Voice-over "stars" are often afforded little to no recognition, a fact that insiders seem remarkably cool with.
On Thursday, some of the field's top talent gathered at Astoria's Museum of the Moving Image for a seminar called Cracking the Voiceover Code, instructing fresh-larynxed newcomers on how to break in and sustain a career.
Joan Baker -- who has voiced hundreds of spots for ABC, HBO, ESPN, E!, CNN and other television acronyms -- hosted along with instructor and actor Pat Fraley, who you might know as one of the 47 different characters he played in the original 1987 Ninja Turtles series. (I recognized his voice immediately.)
"There was a time when I couldn't get arrested on camera, "Baker said. "No one could figure out what to do with me. I was bound and determined to have a career in show business when I came across voice-overs. It was very surprising that this community opened its doors to me since for years I could not make a dent. Once I got into voice-over and started to learn the craft my spirit soared."
"First I had to learn how to use a microphone," joked Dave Fennoy, the voice of Hulu and many-a casualty in The Walking Dead video games, as he proceeded to fumble with his own."Most people in voice-over come from acting, and if you don't then you need to learn how to be an actor. I had to take some classes. My very first voice-over lesson was with Lucille Bliss, who was the voice of Smurfette."
"You need to know how to play a role," Johnny Heller agreed. He's recorded over 500 audio books. "You could be in the studio just acting for 20 hours before anybody edits anything. It's 98 percent just you networking and getting yourself out there."
The voice-acting job pool is about as parched as the full-on acting job pool, which is to say, severely dehydrated. Everyone wants to land a Micky D's ad that goes national or make intentionally blasé conversation to dub over a restaurant scene in which Johnny Depp eats a sandwich and says something plot-significant.
Almost everyone cites "British accent" on their resume but almost no one can accurately follow up on that. Anybody halfway literate probably can land an audiobook deal, but the producers of bestsellers will audition like there's no tomorrow. The woman who narrated Fifty Shades of Gray probably had to leap institutional hurdles that were sky-high and on fire. But ultimately for voice-over artists, business isn't too dissimilar from the rest of the muted beige work-a-day world: It's pretty much who you know.
"Relationships are big part of this business, and can last throughout your career. I had done several things for Dick Wolf before Law & Order came along," said Steve Zirnkilton. He's the guy you hear during the introduction at the beginning of every episode and kind of a voice celebrity, if ever there was one. Afterward the panel a surprisingly long autograph line assembled in his wake.
The lively (and perfectly pitched) conversation also touched on the ubiquity of pay-to-play sites (where users pay a fee to audition, a hot topic of inner-industry debate), recent unionization, that pesky thing called puberty which has proven a career-ender for countless child actors, and the pretty overt racial stereotyping that goes on -- particularly baffling in a field that's purely audio.
"For a while I would only get Spanish-speaking roles because of my name, even though I have no accent whatsoever," confessed Sylvia Villagran, one of the few female voice actors. "That changed in 1999 with Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek, and Ricky Martin. Then it became very sexy to be Latino."
For Baker, however, the recording studio was the first place in New York where her performance was based on merit and didn't necessarily need to address her mixed-race background. "It wasn't about if my looks or my type was used or wasn't used, but about bringing my own voice to life in a three-dimensional way."
The seminar broke with a cocktail hour sponsored by something billed as "French tequila." If there's one thing voice actors seem to love it's networking with other voice actors, and while the parties may not be lavish, the small talk is a joy to listen to.